Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The faceless bitch slide: Why women have trouble with public speaking

From time to time, smart women I like and admire get defensive about the topic of women and public speaking. "Women don't need to be fixed," they say. (I agree--never said that.) "So why do they need special advice about public speaking?" I can talk about the long history of women being prevented from speaking in public and the myths that have arisen--myths still in use today--that help keep women silent in meetings and conversations.

But now, instead, I think I'll just talk about the faceless bitch slide.

Programmer Anne Gunn recently attended a professional conference she values. But after she wrote that post about what she got out of it, she wrote another post, Noah Kagan and the Faceless Bitch Slide, about that speaker's presentation. It's a careful, thoughtful analysis, something you'll value more when you read what happened during the presentation, for which Gunn was in the audience:
...as a way to bring emphasis to a point he was making about the mixture of pleasure and pain with which many of us approach our email inbox at the start of the day, Noah put up on the screen a picture of a young woman . . . writhing, I guess you’d say . . . on a floor, maybe? . . . in ecstasy — well, maybe. . . in pain, probably (a lot more pain than pleasure is what it looked like to me).  And he tried very hard to get a couple of the audience members to describe the picture in some detail or put a word to her state.  One of them stuttered out enough of a response to earn a bottle of hot sauce. Now, however weird and tasteless writhing-woman was, she was, at least, displayed on the screen in service to a point Noah was making in his speech. 
But then came the faceless bitch: a headshot, not even particularly recognizable as female because the face and neck were covered by a huge opaque circle across which, in large letters, was enscribed BITCH.

A short time after the slide flashed on the screen, Kagan glanced over his shoulder, as if a bit surprised, since she clearly didn’t have anything to do with the point he was making, and said, “Oh, that’s just my previous girlfriend.” Then he just left her up there — for a long time. Long enough that finally I came to my senses, picked up my phone, and snapped a picture of the screen.
Gunn goes on to describe her reactions, which stopped short of leaving the room or confronting the speaker fully. The comments following her post include many angry, nasty words about women and about her, a backlash against her daring to write about the event.

When I came across this post in a thread on Google+, I was saddened, but not surprised. This is just one of several recent examples, such as:
Those soldiers were punished, my client got training--a defensive move on her part to show she was trying to correct the "problem"--and the tweets about Boyd were removed from Twitter. Commenters on my blog post argue against what's noted, saying in essence, "we don't see it on Twitter." So if Boyd hadn't blogged about this, there'd be almost no evidence that it happened. The same thought went through my mind as I read Gunn's post: Had she not snapped the photo (which you can see in her post) and blogged about the experience, we'd never know. It's not the kind of thing that gets discussed at conferences. Organizers are unlikely to linger over such an episode. And who wants to talk about that at the "happy" hour?

Yet, when we do have the chance to read about it, it just reminds women of the uncomfortable place they may be putting themselves in when they stand up to speak--or just sit in the audience. They can get coached, dress differently and practice up a storm, but when they speak or watch presentations, they very likely may be reminded that to men present, they're nothing but a sexual object. And we wonder why women hesitate about public speaking. Even the most confident and polished speaker who's female might think more than twice about participating, given these circumstances.

This isn't new behavior. Even the charismatic Sojourner Truth, in her day, was accused of being a man at one assembly (no woman could speak that well, right?) and called on to show her breasts to a group of women so they could verify her gender. Instead, Truth bared her breasts to the entire audience, to silence her critics.

Uncomfortable as it is to have the faceless bitch slide out in the open, it's at least clear--unless our actions serve to obscure the incident. That kind of discrimination is far more difficult to spot when it's coded and hidden, as in those comments about how women talk more than men, when the genders speak about the same number of words per day. What works here is shining a light on it. I'd love to see more men and women calling men on this behavior, in person, on blogs, in letters to conference organizers and fellow speakers, and any other platform they can find. Let's at least create a realistic, rather than romantic, view of what women face when they attend presentations or give them.

What do you think about this uncomfortable situation? Have you walked out of similar presentations? Would you now? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Dalene said...

I don't think I would walk out of a presentation, such as the one with the "bitch" slide. I would want to stay to see if he could really go somewhere with it & make it relevant somehow.
If he could not, during the Q&A time I would ask why he would reveal such immaturity to the audience & recommend in the future he keep his professional life professional. Someone has to let him know just how inappropriate it was.

Tavis said...

I think you hit it on the head with the word "maturity". Having some feelings of attraction for a public speaker is natural, and it probably goes both ways (although I have no way of knowing for sure unless a woman confirms this).

The problem is that any man would think it is appropriate to discuss it in public, belittle the woman who is speaking, or somehow think that she is not as qualified to be taken seriously because she's a woman.

At some point during their adolescent development, their mental maturation was stunted. I can only imagine how these boys behaved when their mothers had something to say. A quick smack to the back of the head might have fixed them.